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NASA’s first Martians may take shelter in massive, 3D-printed igloos

Transport is just one challenge the scientists at NASA have to manage before the agency’s planned manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. Ensuring that the first astronauts survive the Red Planet’s extreme environment is a whole other hurdle to overcome.

But researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center have settled on a valuable material — ice — which they they think will support the first habitats on Mars.

Mars is packed with water ice. In September 2015, NASA found evidence of running water on the Red Planet. Then, in November of last year, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter helped researchers determine that the planet holds enough ice deposits to fill Lake Superior.

Due to the immense cost of shipping materials over 30 million miles through the Solar System, it’s important for astronauts to carry as little as possible and extract what they can from the planet when they land. So, the “Mars Ice Home” concept begins with this approach: use raw materials that are already on Mars.

The Ice Home is an inflatable shelter that can double as a habitat for astronauts and a storage tank for rocket fuel, which departing astronauts can refill for the incoming crew. Its lightweight, 3D-printed design enables it to be transported ahead of time and deployed by robotics, before the astronauts arrive and fill the outer layer with water ice.

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Water might not seem like the best shelter against Martian environmental extremes, but the hydrogen-rich material is actually stellar at shielding from galactic cosmic rays, with the added bonus that it’s translucent, allowing natural light to pass through. The Ice Home will also include a layer of carbon dioxide gas — also available on Mars — to help insulate the living space from the thick layer of ice.

Although the Ice Home is innovative, the team still has a few constraints to address, including the development of an efficient extracting method. With current methods, experts expect the shelter to fill in about 400 days.

The project is a joint effort between designers and architects from industry and academia, including the teams at Space Exploration Architecture and the Cloud Architecture Office who won first prize in NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge.